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MIKE CLARK: Two towns, two states, two very different seasons for prep athletes
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PREP SPORTS | COMMENTARY

MIKE CLARK: Two towns, two states, two very different seasons for prep athletes

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Mike Clark mugshot

Mike Clark

Munster and TF South high schools are a 10-minute drive from each other in normal times.

In this COVID-19 year, their athletic programs are worlds apart.

Prep sports were shut down on both sides of the state line this spring, apart from a few indoor track meets before the pandemic tightened its grip in mid-March.

Sports slowly came back over the summer, but in a crazy-quilt pattern. Most prep sports teams were able to get together for summer workouts, on both sides of the state line.

Then came the fall, and the two sides of the border went their separate ways. The Indiana High School Athletic Association decided to go ahead with all fall sports as usual, but the Illinois High School Association revamped its calendar. Six low-risk sports — boys and girls golf, boys and girls cross country, girls swimming and girls tennis — got the green light to compete this fall, with football, boys soccer and girls volleyball pushed to the spring.

It wasn't that the IHSA didn't want a full fall season. It did. But Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker wouldn't allow it — despite a rising tide of opposition that included rallies in downtown Chicago and Springfield, and an unsuccessful lawsuit to force a return to the normal fall schedule.

Many of the Illinoisans unhappy with Pritzker's hard-line stance have cast it as a partisan issue while noting that every other nearby state is playing football this fall. But Minnesota. Michigan, Wisconsin and Kentucky all have Democratic governors who have allowed the Friday night lights to be lit. So it's not a political issue, it's a Pritzker issue. And it's hard to see this as a Democrat/Republican issue, as some have argued.

If Pritzker wanted to score political points, he would have allowed the IHSA to conduct a full fall schedule. It would likely make him more popular than he is now.

One thing Indiana and Illinois do agree on in this pandemic year is that individual districts should be free to impose greater restrictions on sports if they see fit. And that's where the divide between Munster and TF South comes into focus.

Munster played a full regular-season football schedule as part of a typical fall season. But TF South, along with fellow District 215 school TF North, has not competed against another school in any sport since March. South and North started the school year in remote learning and are scheduled to remain that way at least through the end of the second quarter. While that goes on, there will be no sports.

The IHSA is hoping to receive guidance from Pritzker by the end of the month that will allow it to go ahead with winter sports. But it appears that TF South and TF North athletes won't be returning to competition anytime soon.

It's hard for those kids to understand the "why" here, when they know just down the street, their Indiana neighbors are blocking and tackling and serving and hitting and everything else. Some of the District 215 kids already have lost a spring season and a fall season. Will they lose the winter too, and make it a whole year without sports?

All that being said, it's not like it's been business as usual on the Hoosier side of the line.

In the Indiana football regular season that wrapped up last Friday, only 10 of the 32 schools in the Times coverage area played a full nine-game schedule. Eight more managed to get in eight games.

But Whiting played only two games, the four Hammond public schools were limited to a round-robin schedule among themselves and returning state finalist Valparaiso heads into the postseason at 5-0.

Lately, the COVID-19 metrics have been going in the wrong direction. Cases and positivity rates are creeping up, which can only have us wondering if this is the second wave.

Meanwhile, the virus has ended the season of several Region teams, including Griffith girls soccer, Clark boys soccer, EC Central football and Clark football. It's naive to think this won't happen to more teams, sadly.

It's a cruel ending to so many kids' seasons and, often, prep careers. And how heartbreaking for Clark boys soccer, which got a late reprieve to play an abbreviated season, won the program's first sectional in the final season before the school closes — and then found out on the eve of its first and only regional appearance it would be shut down by COVID-19.

Right now. we're all watching anxiously, wondering if there will be football state champs crowned in Indy over Thanksgiving weekend and whether we'll be able to watch basketball and other sports this winter. We take precautions, we hope and we wait. But we don't know what tomorrow will bring — let alone next month or next year.

If this year has taught us anything, it is that the sports cliche of taking one day at a time has never been and probably never will be more true.

Gallery: 50 famous Region athletes

Mike Clark can be reached at (219) 933-4197 or michael.clark@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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